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Critics say watchdog group too soft on advertising industry

BY ANDREW MARTIN
Chicago Tribune, 10/31/05

NEW YORK - Kellogg's is trying to convince kids that Apple Jacks taste more like cinnamon than apples.

The cereal-making giant has created a Jamaica-like cartoon world called Cinna Island, part of a television and Internet advertising campaign that depicts a laid-back, skateboard-riding character named CinnaMon who extols the "sweet cinnamon taste" of Apple Jacks.

CinnaMon's foil is a grouchy, scheming "Bad Apple" who tries - and inevitably fails - to beat CinnaMon to a bowl of Apple Jacks. "Apple Jacks doesn't taste like apples because the sweet taste of cinnamon is the winner, mon," one ad concludes.

While the Cinna Island campaign might seem like just another gimmick to sell sugar-coated cereal, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and a handful of public health advocates argue that it's much more and should never have aired because it sends a message to children that apples taste bad.

Harkin registered his complaint in September with the Children's Advertising Review Unit, an advertising industry watchdog that is one of the few avenues for protesting ads considered misleading or potentially harmful to children. Touted as a model for industry self-regulation, CARU, as it is known, reviews thousands of children's advertisements on television, in print and on Web sites.

If CARU staffers find something objectionable in the ad, they urge the advertiser to fix the problem.

But as public concern over childhood obesity has increased, so too has criticism of children's advertising and CARU's role in monitoring it. Some critics argue that CARU is so toothless and ineffective that federal regulation of children's advertising may be needed.

"CARU says that self-regulation is working, but any parent (who) watches a half an hour of children's television or walks through the grocery store knows that it isn't," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest.

At a Federal Trade Commission hearing on children's advertising in July, the grocery and advertising industries vowed to beef up CARU by adding additional staff, sharpening the ad unit's guidelines and improving access to CARU for consumers.

The FTC is expected to release a report on children's advertising and childhood obesity by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the Institute of Medicine, a federal advisory group, is planning to release its own study in December that looks at the influence of food marketing on childhood obesity. Last year, the Institute of Medicine recommended that the food industry develop voluntarily guidelines that minimize the risk of obesity in children.

Elizabeth Lascoutx, CARU's director, argues that her five-person staff has been effective in regulating advertisements aimed at children. In the last 2 1/2 years, she said, CARU has asked companies to revise 254 ads, and in only six cases have they refused.

"I think the changes that have been made are kind of impressive," she said.

Many of the improvements proposed for CARU at the July hearing are already in place, Lascoutx said, and task forces are reviewing others. For instance, CARU hired a public relations specialist, added two nutritionists to its advisory board and is hiring two more staff members to handle its expanding workload. A complaint form is available to the public at CARU's Web site, www.caru.org.

But when it comes to CARU's role in monitoring what kinds of food advertisers peddle to kids, nothing has changed. Lascoutx said it simply isn't CARU's role to tell companies what they can advertise.

"We are empowered to look at how products are advertised," she said, "not what products are advertised."

In doing so, CARU sidesteps the issue of childhood obesity, said Ellen Fried, a research associate at Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.

"Self-regulation hasn't really worked in any industry," she said. "A watchdog won't bite the hand that feeds it."

At the very least, Fried said, a combination of government and industry regulation should be required that could start by banning advertising to children in schools and on children's television. Short of a total ban, she argued that nutritional standards for children's ads are crucial, as is meaningful enforcement.

CARU is investigating the Apple Jacks ad, and Lascoutx would not discuss it. But more broadly, critics say the group focuses on minor, often inconsequential problems while children are deluged with junk-food ads. And even when CARU instructs advertisers to change an ad, that often comes after the ad has run for weeks or months.

"When you talk about their success record, it sounds so impressive," Wootan said. "But if you actually look at those cases one by one, you see that CARU is really nitpicking around the edges of the ad. ... The basic question is: Is deception the main concern? Or is there a larger concern that the ads negatively affect children's diet and health?"

As an example, Wootan said she complained to CARU about an advertisement by Arby's that wrapped around an issue of National Geographic Kids magazine that looked like the publication's actual cover. Wootan argued that it was a fake ad that promoted unhealthy food and included the dubious phrase "trusted by moms."

CARU agreed that Arby's should remove "trusted by moms" from the advertisement but otherwise left it alone.

"Who cares if they took off `trusted by moms'?" Wootan said. "It was still an ad that had a negative effect on kids' diets."

CARU is an arm of the National Advertising Review Council and was founded by the advertising industry in 1974 at a time when consumer advocates were calling for regulation of children's ads. Its $650,000 annual budget is paid for primarily by the companies it regulates.

Lascoutx, an attorney who joined CARU 14 years ago and has been director since 1995, said her staff tapes six to 12 hours of children's television shows a day, then fast-forwards through the shows to review the ads. Staffers also pore through children's publications and surf children's Web sites - including the popular online games, known as "advergaming," that promote products.

"Over the course of a week, we do see everything that is out there for kids," she said. "If there's a URL on a TV commercial, we'll go there."

CARU's staff works off guidelines that dictate advertisements be truthful and accurate and not exploit a child's imagination, offer products that are appropriate for children, and present positive role models whenever possible. The principles also make clear that prime responsibility lies with parents.

In interpreting the guidelines, CARU's staff is urged to make sure that children are not encouraged to nag their parents, that snack foods should be represented as such and not as substitutes for meals, and that the amount of product consumed in ads should be within reasonable limits. They also are urged to make sure that "food products should be made so as to encourage sound use of the product with a view toward healthy development of the child and development of good nutritional practices."

In defending CARU, Lascoutx noted that the agency has asked for changes to commercials that showed teenagers wordlessly devouring candy out of a bag and of a child eating candy in his room while his family was downstairs eating dinner. She also noted that in instances where companies don't comply, CARU has referred them to the federal government for enforcement when appropriate.

Lascoutx also touted victories against food companies. Most recently, for instance, CARU forced food companies to change the name of Fruit Snacks, a popular treat for children, to Fruit-Flavored Snacks, because they didn't actually contain fruit.

Asked about the prospect of government regulation of children's ads, Lascoutx pointed out that Sweden and the Canadian province of Quebec already prohibit or limit advertising to children, but childhood obesity remains a problem in both places.

Underage consumers represent billions of dollars to the food and advertising industry. The Institute of Medicine reported last year that food and beverage sales to youngsters exceeded $27 billion in 2002, while food and beverage advertisers spent $12 billion on children's advertising.

The Apple Jacks ad is in many ways a seemingly perfect example of the dispute over CARU's role in the childhood obesity debate.

Wootan said that after she sent a letter of complaint to Kellogg's about the ad, the only thing the company changed was the online biography for the "Bad Apple." Now Bad Apple's hobbies include meddling and scheming as well as promoting the goodness of apples.

Kellogg's defended the ad, saying it was simply trying to be "lighthearted and fun." "It is not intended to disparage apples or discourage children from eating apples," a spokeswoman said.

Harkin argues that the Apple Jacks ad reinforces doubts about the advertising industry's ability to regulate itself. Besides denigrating apples, Harkin said, the campaign implies that cinnamon is responsible for the cereal's sweet taste "rather than the added sugar that comprises Apple Jacks' No. 1 ingredient."

Harkin said he received a letter from CARU in September saying the panel would issue a news release when its inquiry was completed.

But while he waits, the ad continues to run. "The damage is done," said Harkin. "What good is CARU?"

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WATCHDOG'S GUIDELINES

The Children's Advertising Review Unit monitors advertising directed at children younger than 12. The group says ads should:

_Be credible, as children have limited capacity for evaluating information themselves.

_Not exploit children's imaginations by presenting unreasonable expectations of product quality or performance.

_Be truthful and accurate, recognizing that kids learn from advertising.

_Avoid products and content inappropriate for children.

_Encourage friendship, kindness, honesty, generosity and respect for others.

_Use minority and other groups in positive roles and avoid stereotyping and appeals to prejudice.

_Encourage healthy parent-child relationships.
 

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